Cinema Scandinavia: How would you describe The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki? What kind of a film is it?
Juho Kuosmanen: The basic mood is light. Despite being a story about an existential crisis and finding oneself, it is crucial to the narrative that we don’t wallow in the mud but instead, fly like a kite.
CS: What inspired you to make the film?
JK: I met Olli and Raija – the real people behind the main characters – in Kokkola in 2011. Despite the severe Alzheimer’s disease Olli has now, he still remembers the championship fight back in 1962. When he finished telling his story, he smiled and said: “It was the happiest day of my life”. ”How come?”, I had to ask, and he told me about buying the engagement rings together with Raija the same day. Despite thinking that the story was a bit too classic to be told again, what Olli had told me stayed on my mind for weeks after. I dug deeper into the story and realized it was full of beautiful details and complexity, something that lifted it from the average into something unique. I felt Olli’s story wasn’t only about losing the fight and winning in love, but about finding your own way to happiness regardless of outside expectations.
CS: How did Olli Mäki feel about the idea of a film focused on him?
JK: He and his wife Raija had a very positive response. They gave us photographs and told us detailed stories of events surrounding the time period we were planning to film. They also read the script, and they gave us permission to write and shape it into a story that works.
CS: How did you prepare yourself to the directing process?
JK: Preparation was a longer process, since this was my first time working with an idea of my own. Creating an epoch world also brought extra challenges with it, but the best cure to it was the great set designer Kari Kankaanpää and the dress and makeup designers Sari Suominen ja Salla Yli-Luopa.
CS: You co-wrote the film together with Mikko Myllylahti. How was the writing process?
JK: Compared to writing by myself, significantly lighter. Writing together with someone helped to keep the tones of storytelling as what they were supposed to be – the premise was to make a playful film. Writing alone is lonely business, and the character of the process affects the final result. For this story, it was essential to share the pressure with another person.
CS: The film is black and white and shot on 16mm. Why did you choose this format?
JK: We decided on it two months before the shoot. We tried both film and digital but only the one we ended up with – Kodak Tri-X – had the right texture. It takes on an early sixties vibe. With this material, the audience would be taken back to the sixties without us having to underline the period with various objects, cars or hairstyles on the set. We had to order all the stock there was in Europe and in the States, and then Kodak had to even produce some more. It’s not used as a film stock for feature films, but for news in the 60s and 70s.
CS: How was the casting process? Was it easy to find an actor who could fit in the story of Olli Mäki?
JK: Jarkko Lahti, who plays Olli Mäki, is a childhood friend of mine. He’s more of a theatre actor, but he played in my short film The Citizens. This is his first big role in a feature film.
Eero Milonoff, who plays Olli Mäki’s trainer, is quite a known Finnish actor. He’s extremely dedicated – he would phone me about twice a day to talk about this and that, and he’d come and hang out with us when we were doing location scouting.
Oona Airola plays Raija Jänkä, Olli’s love interest. This was her first film role, and she did a huge amount of work to achieve the kind of presence that makes it feel like she’s not acting at all. It wasn’t easy to have such a natural presence as a first timer, but she did a great job. Her role was built up with intelligence and hard work.
CS: Is there something new you learned during the making of the film?
JK: I strive to be honest with what I do and enjoy film-making, and this time it led to success. I don’t plan to continue with feature films, but that kind of a spirit is something I want to keep up with my future works, too.